Going into the 2013 NCAA tournament I find myself fairly certain of one thing. That is Louisville and Florida playing in the championship game. I cannot remember ever feeling as confident in a tournament pick as I have in picking these two teams to meet in the 2013 championship. Predicting all the stuff that happens in the process of getting to that point is a little more difficult, but I make the effort.
I look for a few things when trying to predict the tournament winner. The first and most obvious is that the team is one of the very best in the nation. The next is that it’s a veteran team with a core that has been together at least a couple of years and preferably longer. The team should win their conference tournament. Finally I look for teams with quality big men. Other things are nice, particularly a coach who has a history of success. Those have been the easy to spot characteristics of recent NCAA champions. Kentucky was an exception last year, winning with so many freshmen. In the case of the Wildcats, their overall talent ended up trumping everything else. There are no Kentuckys this year.
The upsets on the first weekend are what the tournament is all about. Here are the games I see as potential shockers, listed in order of most likely to happen.
Belmont over Arizona: I doubt a lower seed has ever screamed “pick me” as loudly as the 2013 Belmont Bruins. This is a senior-laden team going to their third consecutive tournament. There’s very little chance such a team will suffer from a case of being just happy to be here. More likely, after consecutive round one exits, they’ll see this as their last chance to do something truly special as a Belmont Bruin and come out firing. Arizona, like the entire PAC-12, is a team in transition. They recovered nicely from a down year in 2012, but are still a work in progress. The team is good and won’t be an easy out, but is built with more of an eye toward 2014 than anything. Before the seedings came out I saw Belmont as a team likely to pull off a first round upset and Arizona as a likely round one upset victim. The fact that they’re squaring off makes this upset pick an easy one to make.
Minnesota over UCLA: UCLA is in a similar situation to Arizona. A nice recruiting year has gotten them back into the top 25, but it’s just one step. They’re still a young, inexperienced team that lacks quality bigs and has only one season playing together. It doesn’t help the Bruins that likely NBA draftee Jordan Adams will be out. Minnesota is a tough, veteran group that’s still standing following a rugged Big 10 season. They should prevail.
New Mexico State over Saint Louis: I’m not sure how Sim Bhullar, the Aggies 7’5” freshman center, slipped under my prospect radar all year. That has been fixed. I feel he’ll be a load for the small Billikens to handle. NMSU has gone 18-2 since a 6-8 start. They’re a young team, which is certainly a negative, but they really seem to be getting it together at the right time. Saint Louis is the type of small, scrappy, overachieving team that just doesn’t do well in the tournament. This looks like an upset to me. Take NMSU all the way to the Sweet 16.
St Mary’s over Memphis: The Gaels were not only shoved into a play-in game as an 11 seed, but more than any other team they had to endure talk radio gasbags across the country ranting against their inclusion as if it’s some sort of life and death tragedy. From what little I know about athletes I’m certain such things will put a chip on the collective shoulder of this team. That should give them enough of an edge to get them past a Memphis team that their pretty much in the same class as anyways. So how come the first round games don’t involve only 16 seeds? Can anyone answer that one for me?
San Diego State over Oklahoma: In the original post I made a mistake and put South Dakota State as beating Oklahoma. That won’t happen, because it’s San Diego State playing Oklahoma. I’m still going with the upset. Nate Wolters and the Jackrabbits will come up short against Michigan. Apologies for the original error.
Oregon over Oklahoma State: We all know a 12 beats a 5 every tournament. The Ducks are my #12 pick for 2013. While the Ducks are a PAC-12 team, they do have the size and experience edge on OSU that should swing this game their way.
Bucknell over Butler: Last year a small Missouri team was ousted by a small college team with a 7-footer headed for the NBA. A similar scenario is at play here. Butler is a good, well-coached team, but I don’t think they’ll have an answer for Bucknell’s Mike Muscala.
Creighton over Duke: This is a projected round 2 matchup. The Blue Jays have the look of a team that could surprise with a nice run. They have that size/experience combination that works well in the tournament. They have a likely first round draftee and possible Wooden award winner in McDermott. Duke is a good team that’s capable of a nice run, but they’re also a team that has had their share of problems in early rounds of recent tournaments. I feel Creighton will have what it takes to knock them off.
More 2013 Tournament thoughts
The selection committee didn’t do Gonzaga any favors. After round one the Zags’ worst case scenario is a very good Pitt team that’s wildly under rated as an 8th seed. Following that is always tough Wisconsin. Should they get past the Badgers, waiting for them will be an Ohio State team that might be playing better than any team in the country right now. Gonzaga burst onto the national scene in the ’99 tournament as a surprise Elite 8 team. Since then they’ve been a tournament regular, but haven’t advanced past the Sweet 16. This year is their best ever chance to do that. I feel these Zags will have what it takes to make their first Final 4, mainly because I don’t see that any potential opponent has the size to stop Olynyk. It won’t be an easy road though.
Indiana and Kansas both face a tough round 2 matchup. For the Hoosiers it’s the winner of NC State/Temple. Both are big, veteran teams that have played in multiple tournaments. Following that the Hoosiers have Syracuse or UNLV, two teams talented enough to beat any team in the nation on any given day. Kansas is looking at the North Carolina/Villanova winner. Both are scrappy teams that are hard to put away. Carolina particularly brings unneeded drama for the Jayhawks.
Syracuse is a tempting Final 4 choice. They have as much quality size and NBA-level talent as any team in the tournament. That and they’re the team that won’t stop jumping off the brackets and into my mind as a team I should be watching. But when I see them playing Indiana, visions of Victor Oladipo abusing Michael Carter-Williams keep coming up, so I have to go with the Hoosiers.
I have no clue what to make of Miami. Any team that wins both the ACC regular season and tournament is a good team, even in what was a down year for the conference. They lack any serious pro prospects. They do have several good college players and more quality size than most teams. They’re one of the oldest teams in the tournament, but have no tournament experience. My best guess is they hit the Sweet 16 before a very good Marquette team eliminates them.
The 2-4 seeds I see as no threat would be Saint Louis, Kansas State, New Mexico, Michigan and Georgetown. All but New Mexico suffer from the lack of size and/or experience that typically sinks such teams. In the case of the Lobos, they’re just seeded too high at #3. For all these teams I see the Sweet 16 being as far as they advance.
First Round winners: I guess it’s really the second round and the play-in games are the first round, but whatever…Louisville, Missouri, Oregon, New Mexico State, St. Mary’s, Michigan State, Creighton, Duke, Gonzaga, Pitt, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Belmont, New Mexico, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Kansas, North Carolina, VCU, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, San Diego State, Georgetown, Indiana, North Carolina State, UNLV, Syracuse, Bucknell, Marquette, Illinois, Miami.
Sweet 16: Lousiville, New Mexico State, Michigan State, Creighton, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Ohio State, Kansas, VCU, Florida, Georgetown, Indiana, Syracuse, Marquette, Miami.
Elite 8: Louisville, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Ohio State, Kansas, Florida, Indiana, Marquette.
Final 4: Louisville, Gonzaga, Florida, Indiana.
Championship: Florida over Louisville. I give the Gators a slight edge for a few reasons. The first is I just like their talent better. I give Young and Murphy a slight edge over Dieng and Behanan inside. I feel the veteran Gator backcourt will deal with the Cardinal defense adequately enough. The fact that Louisville is a bad 3-point shooting team scares me. I know Florida finished the season with some conference losses. The same thing happened in ’06 and ’07 when the Gators won back-to-back titles. The scary thing about picking Florida is that they lost their conference championship game. That’s a bad sign, but one I’m going to overlook, because the coach seems like a guy who plays every game with an eye on getting his team ready for the tournament. The bottom line is the way this season has played out so far reminds me of the way ’06 and ’07 did for the Gators. That’s enough to make the Florida Gators my pick as the 2013 NCAA champion.